We don’t agree on everything at CHUD.com. And when we don’t, sometimes it’s good to get it off our chests.
Today: Kick Ass vs. Super
Nick Nunziata: Superhero movies are a dime a dozen, and even though the mainstream finds them fresh and original the idea of nonpowered “regular guys” in superhero costumes is anything but a new development. It just so happens that none of them make it to screens. Or, when they do they’re dreadful low budgeted things featuring the likes of Michael Rappaport or Woody Harrelson. James Gunn’s Super is a recent entry in the “regular guy pretending to be a superhero” subgenre and though it wallows in dark ideas and moments it doesn’t feel fully formed. It sort of lives between the world of gritty flicks like Taxi Driver and some of Todd Solondz’s work and fanflicks. I like James Gunn but feel like he’s having trouble finding his voice as a director. His Troma roots notwithstanding, Slither felt like the launching of a really interesting and high quality filmmaker. This felt like several steps backward. Renn, when I loaned you the disc you came back at me saying you thought it was better than Kick Ass. That shocked me. I like but certainly don’t love Matthew Vaughn’s mini-epic… but feel it’s insanely more effective and interesting than Gunn’s maudlin tone poem.
Renn Brown: Well let me start by clarifying that I don’t dislike Kick Ass in the slightest. I enjoyed it when it first arrived and I’ve enjoyed it several times since, but there’s always been the nagging problem that –if I’m honest about it– my enjoyment of it is ultimately rooted more in the visceral thrills than the thematic payoff. I’ve rewatched Hit Girl obliterate bad guys dozens of times, and Big Daddy’s assault on the warehouse is a powerhouse sequence, but aside from easy satirical notes coming from the former, there’s not a ton of weight to any of it. For all of the quirkiness and interesting ideas thrown out from the start, the film is ultimately a pretty rote Spider-Man-esque origin story that is uniquely comfortable with gore and children that drop “cunt” in a sentence. Otherwise, it’s pretty familiar.
This brings us around to Super which did not in any way rock my world, but demonstrated a whole heaping load of balls more than Kick Ass, by digging in to the absurdity and inherent darkness of the vigilante superhero conceit with honesty. It does it in a small way, and in a way that doesn’t pack tons of new ideas, but it does so bravely (or at least with the ole Troma disregard for taste). The idea of a donning a costume and picking and choosing who gets the shit beat out of them for their crimes, be they grand or petty, is a pretty fucked up thing and Super is honest to that idea all the way through its small little adventure. Combined with the fact that the humor worked for me consistently, it’s a visually slick low-budget film, and the acting is universally fun… I think this is a smaller, more flavorful meal.
Nick Nunziata: Hit Girl is actually the most damaging thing to Kick Ass. People were wowed by the fact this cute girl was saying bad words and committing ultraviolence. What makes Kick Ass work was how it made a statement on the genre and the stereotypes and how it balanced grit and polish. I don’t see it as an origin story akin to Spider-Man at all. In fact, though the character ultimately defeats the villain he’s no more smart or correct in his approach than he was before. He’s not a great character and there’s really no cause for continued tales from his universe. Though it has punch and spectacle, it’s a tone poem as well. Just with more flash and production value. And vision.
Super is about a mentally disturbed person hurting people because he’s impulsive and has no outlet. It’s a ‘throw ideas at a wall’ mentality. There are some fun things there but there’s not a coherent throughline. It’s a serious of things that happen. I understand that it’s meant to be a statement. But it just comes off as seriously half-cocked.
Renn Brown: This is definitely a good topic for debating, because I see both of those points very differently.
Again, without taking too much away from Kick-Ass, I don’t feel like it’s a laser-targeted statement on much of anything. It opens with ruminations on what would happen if a real person dove in to the superhero game, escalates with some fun use of the viral internet fame paradigm, but the character ultimately runs up against a wall where the comic book fantasy has to kick in. There’s even a scene where the character admits to hitting the ceiling of what a normal person can do, and he is drug by the cartoon characters into the unreal world of superheroes as we’re pretty much used to seeing them (except with more violence and cursing). The flailing, untrained fight of the first act gives way to the flash and panache of traditional (if nastier) superhero violence, and the tone of the movie does the same. By the end we have a hero with a jetpack gattling gun saving the day– an edgier version of the same 3rd act deus ex machinas we often see. I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw in the film’s structure, but it kind of buries the main theme and hands the film over to geek service by the end.
Contrast this with Super, where the film backs into the same idea of a real-world person becoming a superhero and unapologetically takes it all the way to a natural conclusion. Frank’s neuroses and the way Gunn chooses to inspire the character are kind of a sideways entry into the idea –much less on-the-nose– but it arrives at the same place. Yes, Ellen Page mentions the whole “why hasn’t anyone done it?” question, but it’s not a fundamentally inciting idea as it is in Kick Ass. What’s great though, is that Super is essentially toying with the post-Watchmen idea that any Superhero would have to be innately fucked up, purely by virtue of what they’ve chosen to do. This is a really fun for me, as I’ve always posited that the only reason Batman stories work is because we as audience know the character, know the man, know his intentions are good. They only work as fantasy, and only because of an unwritten agreement between us and the character that he’s ultimately a good guy. The problem is, this is still a fucked up deal that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It was by so coldly toying with that inherent problem that Alan Moore and Frank Miller managed a one-two punch on superheroes in the 80s. I think by focusing so tightly on one character, and playing it out on a really small scale, Gunn has managed to get across that simple idea more effectively than Kick Ass or even Snyder’s Watchmen (which I also like a lot, but is such a behemoth that no single idea comes across in a simple form).
Nick Nunziata: Well, you’re the dude who brought Kick Ass up, not me! They’re not similar films thematically or structurally. But they are both about regular people who take matters into their own hands. I don’t think either film is a finely tuned commentary on the genre. Additionally, Super doesn’t have crime fighting on its mind in the least. The protagonist is easily the worst, most morally bankrupt character in the story. He isn’t fighting crime. He’s fighting life. Where the movie fails is in executing ideas. Ellen Page exists to keep Rainn Wilson’s character from going too deep into the icky stuff. She’s meant to be a compass, but she ends up being more about speaking to the audience. Reminding people. Illustrating the gravity of these decisions. There’s not a subtle aspect to any of these films, but their job is to enrich, entertain, and contribute to the genre. Super lives in the margins and isn’t even successful at that while Kick Ass deftly lives between the worlds of satire and entertainment, straddling both very well.
Renn Brown: It’s a fair comparison- they both start by indicating they have similar goals (either explicitly in Kick Ass, or implicitly in Super), and end up going different places. I think they both include similar subtext, but Super pulls it off more effectively exactly because Frank is fighting against life. It makes it clear that individual civilian enforcement of laws is a problem, something you can extrapolate as a universal truth, even if you don’t take it as far as beating a couple with a wrench for breaking in line. That’s the bravery of the film I think, is that it is small and twisted enough that it can completely sacrifice (literally and figuratively) its characters to the reality of the situation. So yeah, [SPOILER: Frank outright murders a guy], because that’s true to the situation that’s been set up. The film also wisely doesn’t dwell past this point.
Looking at Ellen Page’s character, Libby seems a pretty clear parallel for the mindless childhood exuberance that often drives the popularity of these superheroes. She also more clearly shows that the modus operandi of a superhero, unleashed without proper purpose or even the minimum of control that Frank demonstrates, is a really really dangerous idea at its core. Obviously Libby also ends up serving as a means to demonstrate a much more obvious point, alongside the more subtle one.
Super does load itself with Gunn’s peculiar sense of humor and a few quirky aesthetic choices that border on being way too precious. But Gunn’s brand of subversion is precisely the kind that would enjoy hiding a brutal, demented set of characters and ideas inside an adorable little indie package, complete with oh-so cute title treatments and the chipper score. I don’t think that betrays the tone of the film or shows a lack of refinement on the filmmaker’s part though. So instead of margins, I see focus. Where you see a straddling of satire and entertainment, I see a compromise that sacrifices the former at the altar of the later. I like them both for very different reasons, but Super more effectively makes a point that a lot of films have tried to communicate through bloat, when it always needed a bludgeon.
Nick Nunziata: I think you’re overselling it. I think Gunn did a more fun job with The Specials in taking a genre and bending it. Though there are some fun moments and others where the finality and severity of his intentions are rewarding, Super is ultimately an idea that’d be better served giving its all-star cast more to do and in some respects less.
Kick Ass has flaws but the brutality and real-world consequences so vital to Super are there, but with a whole lot more.